The production of clothing has always created waste, but major changes in production over the last decade, called fast fashion, have increased the amount of waste to alarming proportions.
The fashion industry now produces more carbon emissions each year than international flight and maritime shipping combined.
In the past 20 years, this faster system of producing and marketing clothing has been the driver behind a 60% increase in the number of garments people buy each year, almost doubling the production of the industry.
Fast fashion has developed systems that follow fashion trends. Production can be quickly changed to make more or less of a style or color in a matter of days. This can lead to pulling items that are not selling from stores and sending them directly to landfills or incinerators, then replacing them with something new.
One store chain alone was found to have burned 60 tons of finished clothing in 2017.
It is estimated that 85% of all textiles are wasted. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of textile waste is either burned or goes to a landfill every second.
The only solution to this growing problem is for consumers to rethink their buying habits, to change the demand side of the equation.
In the United States, 21 billion pounds of textiles a year are wasted, and production in the United States not a big part of the industry, as most of its production has moved to areas of the world where the cost of labor is cheap. This has driven down the cost of manufacturing and fed the fast fashion fire by lowering retail prices.
In Bangladesh, factory workers make less than $100 a month. Unsafe working conditions, forced labor and child labor are found in factories around the world.
Clothing production pollutes trillions of gallons of water each year. Growing cotton takes a lot of water, and more is used in the production and the dyeing processes. It takes 700 gallons of water to produce a cotton shirt and 2,000 gallons for one pair of jeans.
Dyeing fabric is the second largest polluter of water worldwide. The untreated waste water is often discarded into streams or rivers, taking chemicals and microfibers with it.
Synthetic fiber used in fabric has increased over the years. It is estimated that 60% of new garments contain some form of plastic fiber, mostly polyester. The production of these microplastics emits carbon and pollutes water.
Microfibers, which are tiny particles of microplastics, take hundreds of years to break down. Clothing sheds microfibers every time it is washed. It is estimated that microplastics make up 31% of the plastic pollution in the ocean.
Unfortunately, even giving clothing to Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul or other resale stores does not guarantee that your garment will not end up in a landfill. These organizations are swamped with more than they can sell.
Only the best donations make it to the sales floor. If they don’t sell quickly, they are sorted again for quality. The better items are sent to other parts of the world. What remains will either be shredded for filler or insulation or go to a landfill or incinerator. Because of the glut, some countries have banned the import of used clothing.
We can help slow fast fashion by buying less.
Seek out companies that use natural fabrics. Make sure that what you buy is made from fabric that contains little or no plastic fibers. This might mean paying more per garment, but buying better quality will make your clothes last longer.
Also, stay away from trends. Buy simple, timeless items that mix and match, and use accessories as your fashion statement. Find a friend or a group with similar taste and agree to trade accessories occasionally.
Consider renting for special occasions. Look online for clothing rental companies. Or you could borrow from a friend or buy from a consignment store.
And shop in resale stores. You will find amazing bargains. Refashioning good quality items can be fun.
Clothing can be mended, altered and dyed. Do not give up on good pieces. Breathe life back into them.
Finally, be careful to not be lured by the multitude of sales that happen every day. If you do not need it, do not buy it.
If our consumption changes, production will change to meet our reduced demand.